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Christians step up

Ballet company blends dance, religious expression

JACKSON, Miss. — Instead of heading off to college after high school graduation, Elizabeth Kraft left her northern Virginia home for a small dance studio in Mississippi.

She had long aspired to dance professionally. But after enrolling in various programs, Kraft said she found the competitive world of dance to be "cutthroat." She even considered giving it up altogether.

"The Lord showed me that without dance in my life," the 19-year-old said, "it would be kind of empty."

She and other dancers from around the world were drawn to Ballet Magnificat!, a nondenominational Christian ballet company that combines classical dance instruction, family-friendly material and a mission to share the Christian faith. The company is part of a trend incorporating dance and other creative arts into religious expression, scholars say.

Kraft is a member of the Jackson-based company's trainee program, a one- to four-year program. Dancers are schooled in classical ballet and get to participate in Christian-themed performances.

A fellow trainee, Hanna Nagel, 22, traveled from Germany to join the program after dancing in secular companies in her native country. Nagel said she found her religious beliefs interfered with some of the provocative subject matter portrayed on stage. She knew there had to be a place where her spiritual side could exist with her passion for dancing. An Internet search led her to Ballet Magnificat!

Located next to a dog-grooming business, Ballet Magnificat!'s building is unassuming from the outside with some front windows giving a view of trainee classes.

With four dance studios and a school of arts that teaches about 400, the narrow, winding hallways are abuzz with activity. Music echoes through the sweltering studios during class hours, the warm temperatures suiting the dancers' need for warm muscles.

The company was founded in 1986 by Kathy Thibodeaux, a silver medalist at the II USA International Ballet Competition, which is held in Jackson every four years.

Her performance to the contemporary Christian classic, "We Shall Behold Him," was "sort of the seed that started out as Ballet Magnificat!," said Keith Thibodeaux, Kathy's husband and executive director of the business. "We are unique in that we are a Christian company. We make no bones about that."

Keith Thibodeaux is no stranger to performing. Though not trained in ballet, he plays the drums, a talent that earned him a gig as Little Ricky, the TV son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the "I Love Lucy" show.

Kathy Thibodeaux said most of the company's performances are stories that are biblically based and just put to dance, with contemporary Christian and classical music.

"We use the same dance vocabulary that we were brought up in. We just sell a different message," Kathy Thibodeaux said.

What started as a four-person ballet company has now grown to two professional touring companies — Alpha and Omega — and 31 trainees. They attend classes five days a week in preparation for ministries in the touring companies as well as work with other mission organizations.

"Our desire is that it will magnify the Lord in all that we do. Dancing is just a gift that the Lord gave us," Kathy Thibodeaux said.

Members of the Alpha Company spent the beginning of September on a European tour that took them to Germany, Greece and the Czech Republic. Alpha is performing "Ruth," a contemporary spin on the biblical story.

The group says it has not faced much resistance in performing Christian-themed productions, mainly because the dancers are often invited to perform.

In a Jewish synagogue theater in Salem, Mass., Keith Thibodeaux said the company was asked not to say Jesus' name during the performance.

"We really get to go where the normal crews of church pastors or evangelists are not able to go to," Keith Thibodeaux said. He said he believes the performances attract people who enjoy ballet — as well as people who have never been to a ballet but attend because the group is Christian.

Cynthia Newland, assistant professor of dance at Christian liberal arts school Belhaven College in Jackson, said Christian dance found a place in the "Jesus Movement" of the 1960s and kept growing steadily.

Along with dance, other creative arts like painting and poetry-reading are joining more traditional expressions like music and drama in worship settings.

"I've in particular seen much more of a growth and a resurgence in dance in the last 12 years," Newland said. "That is being done in churches of all denominations."

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